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12 August 2022

Are football songs the new folk music?

From the trumpet blasts in “Sweet Caroline” to the many chants based on the tune of “Vindaloo” – sports songs are a modern oral tradition.

By Emily Bootle

It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment that Neil Diamond’s 1969 song “Sweet Caroline” became an alternative English national anthem, but last year’s delayed Euro 2020 football tournament would be a good place to start. Tony Perry, a DJ for major sports events, is often credited with being the “first” to play the song and introduce it to the England canon when he played it at the England-Germany match at the Euros on 29 June 2021, but he doesn’t take all the credit. “The song’s really well known and has been associated with sports for years and years, so I definitely wouldn’t claim I’m the only person to do it. But it hadn’t been played at an England game specifically, so that was definitely my fault,” he tells me.

The beauty of “Sweet Caroline” is different from that of a song such as Gala’s “Freed from Desire”, which Perry tells me is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser, or Calvin Harris and Dua Lipa’s “One Kiss”, heard blasting from Hundred cricket grounds and Villa Park alike. “Sweet Caroline” – with its euphoric chorus build, simple lyrics and, of course, its triumphant, chantable trumpet line – “BA BA BAAA” – is no longer a song that actually needs to be played through the speakers to be enjoyed. It is heard in spontaneous bursts of crowd song at stadiums, by groups of friends walking home from the pub and on the Tube after a particularly exuberant night out. It has taken on meaning well beyond its various recorded iterations – almost like a new kind of folk song.

Though when we think of folk music nowadays we might imagine a specific kind of band and sound – fiddle, traditional drums, tunes that immediately evoke a particular type of Scottish or Irish patriotism – the definition of folk music cannot be boiled down to genre or musical attributes alone. In fact, it is difficult to define in concrete terms. Steve Roud, the creator of the Roud Folk Song Index, a database of 25,000 folk songs collected from oral traditions in English around the world, has defined folk music as “face to face, non-commercial, local, non-trained” – but has said these are not “hard and fast rules”.

[See also: Dave Davies: “I like guitars but I haven’t got any left”]

Dr Alexis Bennett, lecturer in music at Goldsmiths University and a folk player who is currently teaching a folk music course at the Dartington Music Summer School, explains that folk music can be broadly understood as music that is “aurally transmitted… passed from one person to the next organically, often in a social or domestic setting”, as opposed to music that is taught in a formal setting. It did not require literacy or music lessons to be learned – it simply had to be heard.

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Folk songs are also not formally recorded as a definitive version, either on a record or on paper, diverging from songs like “Sweet Caroline”. To Bennett, folk music is “alive”, not “set in stone”, which makes recordings “problematic”. So while “Sweet Caroline” may still be learned by ear and sung by “the folk”, it can’t evolve further because it has been, as Bennett puts it, “frozen” by the recording (or, in this case, multiple recordings).

This is a complicated issue within the folk scene. At the turn of the 20th century, as the Industrial Revolution led people away from the provinces and into the cities, rural folk songs were left behind, too. Urgency arose around “collecting” the songs before they died out, and many people dedicated themselves to the task, including Lucy Broadwood – a descendant of the piano-making family John Broadwood & Sons – who travelled around the country, visiting pubs (no small feat for a woman at the time) and documenting the songs. The only way they could preserve them, since the culture from which they originated was, essentially, dying, was to write them down – which some would say undermined the culture.

Football chants – those that rise up from stadiums spontaneously, as distinct from songs like “Sweet Caroline” – have been identified by the veteran folk musician Martin Carthy as “the one surviving embodiment of an organic living folk tradition”. Chants are known purely by ear, evolving as famous victories, players and rivals come and go, passed down through generations of fans. And yet recorded music is such a fundamental part of our lives that they cannot be entirely distinct: the melody of “Vindaloo”, for example, Fat Les’s 1998 track written as a parody of football songs, forms the basis for many of these chants. (In rugby, the significance of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” has caused controversy precisely because it’s a folk song: it is thought to have been a slave song originally, and in recent years this has led some to question how appropriate it is to chant it at Twickenham. Arthur Jones, a professor at the University of Denver who specialises in African-American music, told the Guardian it was “ridiculous” to suggest you shouldn’t sing it if you’re not black.)

In pop, recording has similarly boosted and undermined the integrity of folk music. Bennett tells me that traditionalists on the folk scene resent pop “revivals”, such as the 2010s era of Mumford & Sons – people who “grab a banjo and wear a waistcoat and put on a Peaky Blinders hat”. But, equally, the folk scene partially relies on the recording industry and streaming services to keep going, simply because it does not have as much “organic” prevalence (though Bennett, along with many others, still plays in pubs).

Though “Sweet Caroline”, static as it is, can never fit a purist definition of a folk song, it is also significant that it matters to people. And although it may be “frozen” at sports matches by being played in its original, recorded form, the song itself extends beyond the boundaries of the stadium. “It’s not only the people in the stadium in front of you: if a track catches on at that memorable moment then it spills out of the stadium into pubs, schools, assembly halls,” Perry tells me. “The best thing that’s come out of all this is that loads of kids sing the song – even though they don’t know what it’s about, they don’t know who Neil Diamond is or the fact that it’s been around a really long time.”

When England’s women won the Euros on 31 July 2022, their second goalscorer, Chloe Kelly, was being interviewed just as “Sweet Caroline” was leading up to the chorus and the rest of the team were doing a victory lap. She dropped her microphone to run and join them (just in time for the “ba ba baaa”s). Perry notes that part of the beauty of these songs is precisely that they are fixed at a certain point in time – fans remember them in association with a winning match or a particularly fun day out, and message him to thank him for playing them. And yet the same sense of personal significance also enables them to be fluid: they stay with us and morph in different contexts. And so while “pure”, unrecorded folk music retains its own specific power, beauty and cultural importance, the folk process is still happening all around us: in music for the people.

[See also: Abba Voyage concert: a major technological and artistic achievement]

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